It was in 2006, right around the release of that tired remake of Kairo starring Vernonica Mars, that I found Guinea Pig. Released into the massive Japanese straight-to-video market in 1985, the series’s first release—created and directed by Satoru Ogura—is entitled 01: The Devil’s Experiment. It borrows the “found footage” motif perfected by Cannibal Holocaust and later watered down in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.
The first thing we see: scrolling text announcing (as per the film’s original marketing) that this tape was found with no markings except for the title on the box: “Guinea Pig.” Then: a series of shots in a wooded area before we happen upon a woman hanging in a net. The scene fades to black, only to have the Japanese character for “Slap” appear in the lower right hand corner. These title cards bluntly explain the different “experiments” that will take place: “kick”, “boil”, “spin”—no, they actually just spin her around in a circle until she vomits—“worms”, “cut” and, finally, “pierce.” I find it hard to watch, personally. The entire thing looks bleached out, like a bad VHS transfer. The sunglasses look hokey. And you can tell a few times that the Tough Guy hitting the victim misses her cheek completely, doing nothing more than smacking leather glove against leather glove.
Guinea Pig is minimal budget filmmaking with incredible effects—a series akin, in a way, to the Hipster Horror resurgence currently in effect, and which plays on a pervasive social taboo: the snuff film. 02: Flower of Heaven and Earth does just that. Directed by Hideshi Hino—who would also helm Mermaid in a Manhole—the film begins with a pasty, gnarled man in Samurai garb abducting a woman. He waxes poetic to the unknown cameraman about his reasoning behind doing what he’s about to do. In the opening, we learn this was supposedly sent to an artist as a “thank you” for all of his work. (As with Experiment, when released it was only as a blank VHS tape with the term “Za GiniiPiggu” written in Kanji on the packaging.)
The Samurai proceeds to cut through his victim’s clothes, then takes her hands, arms, feet and entrails from her—all on camera—before, in a slow-motion sequence, chopping her head off. When Charlie Sheen—of all the people—saw it, he was convinced he had just watched a snuff film. This led to a minor situation mirroring Cannibal Holocaust where the F.B.I. calmly told Sheen that Flower of Heaven and Earth was only a movie and not to worry. Unfortunately, Tsutomu Miyazaki didn’t get the message. The so-called “Otaku Killer,” Miyazaki copied Flower of Heaven and Earth down to a scene for one of his murders. Upon finding out that he had been inspired by this, the Tokyo government railed against those involved with the project.
The third film of the franchise—released prior to Miyazaki’s killing spree—left the snuff concept behind for a more surreal dark comedy. 03: He Never Dies follows a man who is driven to suicide by taunts from both his girlfriend and the man she was cheating with. He runs a knife across his wrist, giddy that he’s going through with it, only to stare in shock as the blood stops. He prods his finger into the wound and nothing else happens. This leads to a series of brutal acts: chopping off his own hand, slitting his own throat, stabbing himself with a protractor and even disemboweling himself and giggling while he throws his intestines around the room.
1986 and 1988 would see the release of, respectively, Making of Guinea Pig and 04: Mermaid in a Manhole. The making of doc provides the background to Flower of Heaven and Earth, and is strangely compelling in a lo-fi way. It really does show how far latex, setting and no budget can strengthen an otherwise cliché concept. Mermaid is a return to the perverse as a man in a struggling marriage finds a Mermaid he befriended as a child in the sewer. He takes her home, but notices she is covered with sores from what we think is the pollution she was covered in. He becomes so entranced by the scene that he begins painting her portrait using her own various fluids as the source. She continues to decompose, only leading to his own glee at completing the work. Of course, it takes a very Rod Sterling twist toward the end when you begin to question just where his wife is.
05: Android of Notre Dame brings nothing new to the series, aside from a cackling midget and the comedic use of a man being cut down at the knees. But 1990’s 06: Devil Doctor Woman intentionally comes off as a horror-comedy, almost as if Peter Jackson had decided to set Bad Taste II in Japan. The titular character (played by a drag queen named Peter—no, seriously) would introduce each “Karte” about the various, strange cases (s)he ran into: a family whose genetic trait means their brains will boil until they explode (so the good Doctor does everything she can to piss them off); a man who sweats blood (the Doctor sends him to a sauna); and—a truly odd scene—a Yakuza with a human growth carbuncle who the Doctor, deeming him ready for show business, has dance in the streets, shaking the latex face around his stomach. After this entry, an order was (supposedly) passed by the Japanese government that no films could ever again be titled Guinea Pig for fear of inspiring copycat Miyazakis. There was technically a seventh film, but it is merely a selection of “Greatest Cuts” from the entire series.
Guinea Pig is clearly one of the great examples of modern, splatter horror—it even manages to out-torture porn Eli Roth, so much so that I’m always surprised no one ever brings it up in comparison. The series is currently available on DVD in a box set from Unearthed Films. The quality varies from film to film, mainly due to the transfers from VHS. The shock-style of the covers take away from the original nondescript packaging. I’ve only run into one copy of the original Guinea Pig on VHS, but later found out it was transfered and not a “true” copy (here’s looking at you old Kim’s on Bleecker Street!)
While Asian films have often been marketed as “EXTREME” (cough, Tartan) or “ADULT ANIMATION” (Manga Entertainment), it remains a source of much amusement to me that such low-brow, straight-to-video films would rival and out-perform the Black Hair Ghost Girl genre. Unfortunately, many of the Guinea Pig films don’t really stand the test of time: Devil Doctor Woman resembles an episode of the SFX-horror series Monsters, but with some very questionable non sequitur jokes that would be more at home in the awkward comedy of Tim and Eric. If you’re a genre buff or just tired of your friends preaching about how great J-Horror is, throw one of these films at them. They’re a welcome respite from people who are still trying to ape a “J-Horror” moniker, even those that are doing so just for some weird Japanophile fantasy film.
On a side note, Matt Alt penned a brief look at how The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (a.k.a. the first third of the Robotech series released to U.S. audiences) is not only a shonen story, but one that deals with the concepts of war and commercialism as compared with the theatrical re-telling, Macross: Do You Remember Love?. From Neojapnisme:
“So far, Macross sounds like any of a dozen anime plots. (Thanks to its origins as a satire of the genre, Macross is largely a pastiche of Japanese sci-fi archetypes.) The twist is the portrayal of airheaded ‘80s Japanese consumer culture prospering aboard the ship. Macross’ pop-cultural proselytizing is aggressive enough in the television series, but it’s played up to a delirious degree in the 1984 theatrical version Macross: Do You Remember Love. The film opens with a slow montage of life on the streets of Macross City, whose inhabitants apparently don’t let the fact that they’re in the midst of an intergalactic war get in the way of some good shopping. Despite being trapped in the belly of an alien space-fortress that’s stranded out somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn, the streets teem with vending machines dispensing soft drinks, a doppelganger of Harajuku’s teenage-mecca Takeshita Doori complete with fast-food joints and “jumbotron” TVs advertising the latest fashions. There’s even a multi-lane highway (to where isn’t ever explained) and an outdoor display of next season’s car models. Who exactly is supplying all of these new products isn’t ever asked, let alone answered. The presence of a thriving consumer economy—even in this most bizarre of circumstances—is treated as obvious, a given, unquestioned by creator and viewer alike.”
I do think Matt has a valid point—even if this conclusion is reached way too quickly with much presumption as regards the audience. But as a commenter named “M-Bone” sums up:
“…There is also the hint that consumerism is not a solution – some of the Zentradi, in the end, cannot give up war. They find their culture IN war. This can be read as a fascinating critique of the lingering presence of rightwing kooks in Japan, I think, complete with a final glorious(ly stupid) kamikaze attack.
What you describe IS in the series (and especially in the film) but it is not ALL that is there.”
The World War II comparison can be found throughout most anime as it is, but Alt is definitely onto something.
As for a video this week, I tried to get something from Guinea Pig, but no luck. So, instead, here’s the trailer to Kwaidan:
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man